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South Africa Election: What's at stake for just energy transition?

South Africa,


On May 29, 2024, South Africans will cast their votes in a historic election to decide who governs the country for the next five years. For the first time since apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela swept the African National Congress (ANC) to power in 1994, the party faces the loss of its parliamentary majority. This could, potentially, have far-reaching implications for the country’s energy transition. But what might it mean for just transition processes in particular? We asked Bathandwa Vazi, a policy advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), based in South Africa, for her perspective.

Is just transition a significant issue for campaigners and voters ahead of the election?

For South Africa, the main issue when it comes to energy is load shedding [an ongoing period of widespread national blackouts of electricity supply]. The current government has been somewhat less forthcoming on commitments they’ve made on nationally determined contributions (NDCs) and the just energy transition (JET) and even the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) Investment Plan (IP). Various stakeholders are not completely supporting the decommissioning of coal mines. Since the launch of the Energy Action Plan in 2022, which stipulates how South Africa is going to end load shedding, the focus has been: we know that renewables are important, but we need to get coal power plants up and running in order to tackle the blackouts. So just transition has not been a focus topic in its own right.

Right now, the general perception is that “just transition” is aligned with forcing South Africa to close its coal mines. The feeling is that the blackouts have been caused by criminality at Eskom and sabotage, but also by exporting a lot of the “good” coal overseas. People think if you are aligned with just transition then you are “selling out” South Africa’s coal, and so the political parties have largely avoided the topic in order not to deter voters.

Most energy transition impacts will be felt on a regional level, particularly in coal-rich areas like Mpumalanga. Are topics like the impacts of energy transition on communities or workers part of the election discussions?

In the buildup to the election, these topics have been mentioned even less than before. It’s almost like everyone is avoiding the topic of just transition. In fact, over the last year or so, the energy minister has not showed a lot of support for it. He has a mining background, and since he took on the role of minister for minerals and energy, there’s been a stall in policies around the clean energy transition. Even the bid windows 6 and 7 under the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which were aimed at bringing additional capacity from renewables, has stalled. He’s been spreading the message that South Africa is not ready to transition right now, and that we need to strengthen our coal plants.

People think if you are aligned with just transition then you are “selling out” South Africa’s coal, and so the political parties have largely avoided the topic in order not to deter voters.

Over the last two years, in terms of general community discourse, just transition is not a popular topic. But from an administrative perspective, the Mpumalanga department responsible for environmental and climate change management is continuing with its programmes. Communities in Mpumalanga have been getting engagement from government departments, from the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC), and from other research bodies (such as IISD) in the form of education and workshops. Mpumalanga communities understand what just transition is. People who live close to these coal power plants understand why we need to transition. They will tell you that it’s not good living in a place that’s so polluted—the pollution is literally visible in the air.

Just transition work there has moved beyond just policy and research to practical activities within the communities, with training opportunities and workshops around the green economy more broadly. They’ve had the chance to raise their concerns about job losses, for example, and they’ve been brought into the discussion to brainstorm the kind of jobs they’d like to see within a green economy when the coal power plants are no longer there, and how to repurpose the coal plants from their perspective. Those dialogues continue to evolve, but for people who are not in Mpumalanga and who are only experiencing load shedding, they support coal energy as a means to end the blackouts.

What are the biggest challenges around the implementation of just transition processes in South Africa?

The main challenge right now, if you move away from Mpumalanga, where the issues around energy transition and coal mine closure can be seen in tangible form, is to break down what just transition is and why it matters beyond coal regions. Because just transition itself doesn’t exist within only the coal value chain, but in all fossil fuels.

It needs to be broken down from the perspective of benefit for the end user. Could solar panels save electricity costs or mitigate load-shedding issues, for example? Then people may want to listen and engage. But if you approach it from the perspective of “we are using renewables to cut emissions” then it doesn’t make sense for the electorate, because Africa has not historically played a big a role in contributing to global emissions.

The challenge in municipalities, for example, is to define energy transition in a way that makes sense for people who are not in Mpumalanga. Are you looking at employment effects or people’s health improving, or are you looking at diversion of spending from fossil fuels to green energy? Mainly it’s about understanding and defining it and then developing policies that will speak to what each region actually needs.

The PCC has done a good job in framing just transition for South Africa at a national level and what we should be looking towards, but breaking that down to a regional level remains a challenge. For this, the financial implications of everything that’s being proposed must be considered. Finance is where the big contention is.

How much progress has there been in terms of South Africa’s JETP, particularly in terms of implementation?

The latest development was a meeting held earlier this year by a project management unit called the PMU, which manages the JET IP funds and reports directly to the presidency, to map how the pledged funds will eventually trickle down to the end user from the government. It was broken down by sector and by community- and local government-based projects. However, within that meeting, there was no update on how much of the pledged amount has actually been spent so far or has actually been transferred to South Africa up to now. Most of the funding has gone into administrative activities like establishing the PMU, appointing people, and setting up systems for how funding will actually be allocated or accessed, so we still cannot see any significant implementation results.

Mpumalanga communities understand what just transition is. People who live close to these coal power plants understand why we need to transition.

Since that meeting, there hasn’t been any further public conversation or statements published. It’s almost as if everything is happening behind closed doors, which may be because of the elections and the fact that the topic of just transition stirs the pot within the electorate. Perhaps after the elections, more updates will be made.

How might the election outcome affect just transition planning and implementation in South Africa?

In terms of the election, it is not certain that the ruling party (the ANC) will retain their majority. Much of the just transition work that’s being carried out now is part of ANC’s policy and commitments as the governing party.

What happens after the election depends on how the National Assembly gets formed, what a potential coalition looks like, who has more power, who gets appointed to key ministries (such as the National Treasury, the Department of Energy, or the Department of Environment, Fisheries, and Forestries), and what agenda they are driving. We’ve never had a coalition at a national or provincial level before, and if it happens, it will affect policy in that the parties coming together will want to negotiate based on their own policies and manifestos. For example, the new political party that recently entered the fray with much upheaval—the uMkhonto weSizwe Party (MK), backed by former president Jacob Zuma—is not pro-renewables. If they were to get a large stake in the National Assembly and then negotiate to have one of their people in the Energy Department, anything to do with renewable energy might be suppressed. However, being a minister doesn’t give you complete power either. Everything still needs to go through Parliament. So whatever happens in the landscape after the elections, I don’t expect a huge change.

The 2030 target is already shaky; we have fewer gigawatts coming from renewables than planned, due to delays from the Energy Ministry. It’s important to continue the path towards just transition, because communities on the ground appreciate the engagement, they appreciate the education, and there are already small-scale businesses emerging within the green economy, not just from an energy perspective but in the circular economy as a whole. There are already innovations happening, driven by the fact that people understand that we need energy that is less carbon intensive. The fact that there is that development happening means it will be difficult to undertake a complete overhaul, but amendments (for example, including carbon capture plans) are very possible.

Also, the fact that South Africa is a member of many international bodies, including the G20, means that high-level discussions eventually trickle down to national policy. It’s going to be difficult to steer away from the commitments South Africa has already made in those platforms.

If the ANC lose their parliamentary majority, who would be the most likely coalition partner for them? Could it be a liberal party or a left-leaning party likely to champion workers’ rights and just transition issues?

The ANC hold the political centre; they’re not extreme right or extreme left. Within their policies, some support a liberal stance and some support a socialist stance. They can partner with both ends of the spectrum. Of course, even if they lose the outright majority, they will remain the dominant party.

There have been many new parties entering the fold since the last local government election. In fact, coalitions started at a local level and proved that people are open to voting beyond the ANC, which is why there’s a high probability that we’ll end up with a coalition.

It could be the ANC and the Democratic Alliance (DA), or the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), or the MK. Many people have warmed to the MK because of Jacob Zuma’s endorsement. It looks like they might garner a lot of support and become the fourth largest political party in the country, giving them a seat at the negotiating table. At this point it could go either way. It will just depend on who has the loudest voice and what they are willing to compromise.

Bathandwa Vazi is a policy advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development based in South Africa. She follows the energy discussions in South Africa closely, paying particular attention to discourse on issues including just transition in the buildup to the national election taking place on May 29, 2024.

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